New Research Identifies the 2 Major Causes of Loneliness
... and what can be done to minimize the effects.
Posted December 26, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Research suggests that social identity and emotion regulation explain over one-third of the variance in loneliness.
- People with a history of mental illness feel more lonely and experience more rumination.
- Emotion dysregulation and loss of social identity impact one’s perceptions, making one feel more alone and less supported.
A recent study by Hayes et al. concluded that emotion regulation and social identity uniquely contribute to loneliness. The research, published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, is discussed below.
The Psychology of Loneliness
Since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic began, considerable research has focused on social isolation and loneliness.
What is loneliness? There are different types of loneliness, but in general, loneliness refers to the painful subjective experience of feeling isolated or feeling that one’s relationships are in some ways unsatisfying or deficient (either in quality or quantity).
Loneliness is associated with a variety of tendencies, behaviors, and outcomes, such as materialism, digital media use, and fear of missing out (FOMO). Furthermore, research shows that lonely people are more likely to experience acute or chronic pain and to come down with colds, flu, and many other illnesses.
Emotion Regulation and Loneliness
Individuals who often feel alone tend to have emotion regulation difficulties. Emotion regulation refers to the use of strategies to influence the experience and expression of emotions.
Some of the most effective emotion regulation techniques are problem-solving and reappraisal—changing one’s experience by changing how one thinks about an emotional situation.
Emotion dysregulation occurs when we use maladaptive emotional regulation strategies. Some examples are hiding one’s feelings, avoiding certain feelings (e.g., fear, disgust), ruminating, and catastrophizing.
As a result of these maladaptive strategies, unpleasant emotional experiences (e.g., strong fear, rage, despair) do not get better. In fact, they often become worse—more inappropriate for the situation, intense, long-lasting, etc.
Social Identity and Loneliness
Aside from emotion-regulation difficulties, aspects of social context that are related to loneliness (e.g., feelings of belonging, sense of meaning, and social support) may also contribute to feelings of isolation and solitude.
To understand why, it is important to remember that who we are is defined not only by our own unique characteristics (e.g., being intuitive, introverted, caring, friendly, impulsive, adventurous, and strong). It is also defined by the groups we identify with, such as our family, church, sports club, alumni association, occupational group, or social, recreational, or political clubs to which we belong.
Specifically, feelings of loneliness occur due to the loss or lack of social identities, given that social identities positively influence our attitudes and behavior and promote health and happiness.
The reason for this is that not identifying with or belonging to valued groups means not having access to their social and psychological resources. These resources may include self-esteem, social support, a sense of shared purpose, and the ability to exert control over valued outcomes.
So, the investigation described below explored the relationship between loneliness and both emotion regulation and social identity.
Investigating Loneliness, Emotion Regulation, and Social Support
Sample: 875 participants (658 without and 217 with a current or previous mental health diagnosis); 425 males; average age of 45 years old; 166 single; 530 with a bachelor’s or postgraduate degree.
Participants were asked to complete a survey.
- Group listing: Identifying groups to which they belonged.
- Multiple group memberships: Assessing the strength of connectedness to groups.
- Social support given and received: A sample item was, “People that are important to me make me feel loved and cared for.”
- Emotion regulation of others and self: Assessing extrinsic affect improving (“I spent time with someone”), extrinsic affect worsening (“I told someone about their shortcomings”), intrinsic affect improving (“I thought of positive aspects of my situation”), and intrinsic affect worsening (“I thought about my shortcomings”).
- The 8-item UCLA loneliness scale: A sample item (reverse-coded) was, “I am an outgoing person.”
Loneliness was higher in people with than without a mental illness history. And these individuals reported using more internal affect worsening strategies (e.g., rumination) and experiencing more loneliness.
This is not surprising, since affect worsening emotion regulation strategies have been previously associated with a variety of mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), personality disorders, and substance abuse and addiction.
Loneliness Essential Reads
In terms of affect-improving strategies, there were no major differences between the groups studied.
So, it appears that, compared to the use of adaptive emotion regulation techniques, the use of maladaptive strategies plays a bigger role in the development of mental health problems.
Another key finding was that loneliness correlated with both a lack of social support and the use of internal affect worsening strategies. This relationship held regardless of whether there was a history of mental illness.
Collectively, these results support past research showing that positive social identification can have a positive effect on maladaptive core beliefs and schemas, such as the mistrust/abuse schema or the shame and social isolation schemas—both of which are risk factors for depression.
Analysis of data showed emotion regulation and social identity together account for considerable variation (36 percent) in loneliness.
One possible explanation is that both emotion regulation difficulties and a lack or loss of social identities negatively impact one’s perceptions—making one feel more alone and feel less supported.
And feeling lonely and unsupported is associated with negative mental and physical health outcomes, including reduced well-being and a higher risk of premature death.
So, even though loneliness is not a physical or mental illness, it is associated with negative health outcomes. Therefore, clinicians would be well-advised to inquire about their patients’ social participation and feelings of loneliness and isolation, just as they screen for other risk factors for mental illness.
Furthermore, it is helpful to educate patients about the importance of adaptive emotion regulation strategies and important social factors (e.g., sense of belonging, group identification, social support) for happiness, health, and well-being. And to employ treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and identity-based interventions to help those who feel isolated or alienated and those who perceive their lives as lacking meaning or purpose.
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